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It was nationals 2016. Going into the tournament, I knew my partner and I had a relatively good chance at breaking. We had been here before, and this time we had strategies against almost every case out there. Almost every case.

The only case we didn’t prep at all was a case we knew we were unlikely to lose to. There were only a few teams running it, and it was widely considered to be terrible. It had little to no solvency, no significance, and some pretty heavy DA’s. In retrospect, we should’ve at least written some sort of strategy, because the case ended up winning the tournament. How, you ask? How did a case that was considered to be awful end up taking the national title? The answer is simple: the team running it spoke like they wrote the book of rhetoric, and apparently their judges thought so too.

If you speak like a champ, chances are you’ll win like a champ. Argumentation is important, but in the end, rhetoric takes the trophy.

Rhetoric Through the Ages

Throughout history, rhetoric has always been the mover and shaker’s most powerful tool. Ideas are what make the world go round, and rhetoric is its way of transfer. The ability to convince people to think a certain way is the ability that garners you the most support, and support is power. The more people that follow your way of thinking, the less that oppose you. And the less that oppose you, the more you can get done. Moral of the story: speak like a winner, and you’ll win like a winner. Stammer, and the crowds might just pelt you with stones.

We can trace the use of rhetoric back a long way. In fact, we can trace it back so far, I’m not even going to start with its origin. It would just take too long.

In ancient civilizations, rhetoric was the cornerstone of power. Without it, Sparta would’ve never risen, and the Romans could’ve never conquered the known world. As everyone who studies Cicero knows, rhetoric was the language of the power in the ancient world. But it doesn’t stop there.

During the middle ages, rhetoric was what incentivized knights to seek glory and Kings to begin conquests. Orations started wars, ended pilgrimages, and mitigated conflicts. Rhetoric was the language of influence in the middle ages. But it doesn’t stop there.

During the renaissance, Rhetoric was the language of artists. It was a tool to be used for the good of mankind, and the betterment of our future. Great orations convinced sailors to make the unknown known, explained the solar system to the privileged, and gave hope to those who were less fortunate. Rhetoric was the language of the enlightened during the renaissance. But it doesn’t stop there.

I could go on and on. In fact, anyone could go on and on. Rhetoric’s influence can be seen and pointed towards in all the major happenings our world has ever experienced. Simply put, throughout history, rhetoric has been the most reliable mode of change. But just how powerful is it?

The Voice vs the Message

As most politicians learn (don’t be a politician), your message rarely matters if you don’t have the biggest mouthpiece. Even if you’re in the right, if the media won’t publish your arguments, your campaign is all but over. Even in the debate realm, if you can’t speak, you might as well concede. In almost every situation, the mouthpiece is what matters, not the message.

And the scary thing is, knowing isn’t enough. You can’t stop the influence that rhetoric has on you. Even if you understand that “all the media is bias”, your mindset is still affected when you hear on NPR that the Affordable Care Act saved over 1 million lives. Your mindset is still altered when you hear on CNN that over 25 children have been raped in Aleppo because the US and other countries failed to act. Your understanding is still changed when you watch a Fox news breakdown of the BLM kidnapping in Chicago.

No matter what we think we know, at the end of the day, the things we hear and read change our view of the world; for the better or for the worse. And I think that’s where we get to the meat of the conversation. Rhetoric is more powerful than the idea being conveyed. But it’s not more important.

The Higher Goal

At the end of the day, a good message is greater than a bad message. Rhetoric is a tool and a power and should be used accordingly. If this were a spiderman movie, this would be the part where I would try to find a new way to say “with great power comes great responsibility”. But thankfully, this is not a spiderman movie. It doesn’t have to be. You already know that convincing someone of a bad idea is, well, a bad idea. In fact, you probably agree with me when I say it’s actually immoral to do so if you know the concept you’re speaking on will lead others astray. So I ask you: why do you do it in debate?

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming you individually. We all do this at some point or another. We’ve all run a case we didn’t really believe in or argued a disadvantage we knew deep down was wrong. But selling a wrong idea in debate is not very different from selling a wrong idea outside of debate. In fact, it’s almost worse.

Most of us think of debate as a kind of “free arena”, where it’s all about learning to argue. We think the content doesn’t really matter: the round should be about who’s the better debater. And I would agree with you. In fact, I did agree with you. But then something changed. I realized that debate could be so much more.

Instead of just learning to mindlessly argue, I could learn to advocate for something I really cared about, and instead of just winning for the sake of winning, I could convince my audience to believe in a principle that I actually believed in myself. When I realized that what I was debating about was more important than who won the ballot, I immediately found a renewed passion.

It’s kind of like star wars: the light side is about using your skills for good, while the dark side of rhetoric is more about using it for pure power (or in this case, winning rounds). Sure, the dark side may be more powerful in the short term, but in the long term, the light side overcomes the dark side every time because the dark side ends up destroying itself.

In the same way, the rhetorician who hawks bad wares may be able to succeed ahead of the rhetorician who only argues for what he believes in every once in awhile. But in the long run, the light side rhetorician will always succeed in the things that matter, through honing his art.

Now, I know that this is contrary to the way the majority of us in the debate world think, and I understand where you may be coming from. Don’t get me wrong: debate is an excellent medium to learn to use rhetoric effectively. In fact, one of the main purposes of debating in the first place is to learn to communicate. But it doesn’t have to be the only purpose. There’s a “higher”, more rewarding way.

Winning rounds is fun, but debating a value you personally hold dear is more satisfying. Persuading your audience is a rush, but writing a case that truly matters is more gratifying. Debating just to learn the skill of rhetoric is worthwhile, but arguing about what you truly believe in is simply worth more. Selling a bad idea is “wrong” primarily because it cheats you out of a better experience. It’s like settling for anything else in life; it’s not necessarily “immoral” per say to settle in your job, but it’s certainly wrong simply because there’s a higher, better way.

On a more practical note, you play like you practice. So, if you grow up learning to argue for things you don’t believe in, you’ll be much more comfortable selling what you know to be broken wares in the adult world. As high schoolers, almost everything we do is practice for the real world and doesn’t really matter in the long run. We care about the things we do because we know the way we live now will shape the kind of person we grow up to be.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to only run things you 100% believe in – that would be impossible. All I’m saying is that we should try to lean as much as we can towards the light side of argumentation. If you have the choice, choose the case you actually care about. Choose to run the arguments that actually matter, not just the ones that will win you the ballot.

The message is where the worth is found. Regardless of how powerful your orations are, rhetoric just an amplifier; it can be used for good or evil. The choice is yours.


Rhetoric as a tool is by far more powerful than pure argumentation. If you can speak, you can win. But that’s not the point. The mouthpiece is more powerful than the message, but the message is where the worth is found. As aspiring orators, we have a great deal of power, but we shouldn’t just use that power to win rounds. There’s a higher way.

Argue about things that matter. Debate on the light-side. It’s worth so much more.

Noah Howard is going into his 4th year of competitive debate. Having competed at the national level for the majority of his career, Noah believes that there’s more to an argument than just a list of impacts. Behind each simple piece of evidence, there’s a much deeper world waiting to be explored. In his eyes, debate is about immersing yourself in this world of ideas, and learning to convey your findings in simple, clear terms. He believes debaters should seek primarily to grow in their own understanding; only by diving headfirst into the world of ideas can you ever reach true mastery of rhetoric.

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